October 12, 2019

Trump’s Reckless Rush to Withdraw

The Syria pullout boosts the impression that he’s all impulse, blithely operating out of his depth.

One thing I think I’ve correctly observed about the U.S. military in the 21st century is that its leaders tend to be the last to want to go to war and the last to want to leave it. Political figures operate under public pressures and shifting geopolitical needs and goals; they’re surrounded by people who see the world a certain way; they get revved up, and say, “Go, invade.” Top military staff have reservations. They’ve studied the area, know the realities, the history — they have doctorates in it — and don’t want to get into anything America can’t win cleanly, decisively, relatively quickly. They’re skeptics.

In the end the commander in chief makes the decision and they do their constitutional duty. Troops are deployed and perform. They dig in and fight, they’re professionals — they commit.

The political figures then decide after a few years — or decades — that it’s time to come home. Military leaders are skeptical again. They’ve been in this thing a while, they’re committed to the battle space, they’ve lost men, they know and care about their allies in the fight, they have a sharp sense of the repercussions of withdrawal. They want more time.

I suspect the current habit of skepticism springs in part from the military’s generations-long reckoning with Vietnam. You can see it in Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s influential 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty.” “The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times,” Donald Trump’s second national security adviser writes. “It was lost in Washington, D.C.” Responsibility for the failure rested not only with President Lyndon B. Johnson and his civilian advisers but also his military advisers, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Between the lines Gen. McMaster was telling the current military: Don’t claim to see lights at the ends of tunnels when you don’t really see them, play it straight. Be forthcoming with political leaders — and the public — about “likely costs and consequences.”

Anyway, history is human. Military leaders have their ways and biases. But public military opposition to the president’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, after a Sunday telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to me completely correct. Gen. John Allen, a retired Marine, said, “If we were going to draw a circle around a group of American troops who are more important right now to the stabilization of any place on the planet, it’s that thousand troops.” He said of Turkey’s incursion into Syria, “This is just chaos.” Retired Adm. James Stavridis said it will lead to the comeback of ISIS and embolden other U.S. adversaries. He noted that it’s some kind of policy that can unite, in opposition, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bernie Sanders.

It is.

More compelling is what Jennifer Griffin, the respected national-security correspondent for Fox News, reported Wednesday night. She spoke to a “distraught” U.S. Special Forces soldier on the ground alongside the Kurdish forces that were about to be abandoned. “It was one of the hardest phone calls I have ever taken,” she tweeted. The soldier told her “I am ashamed for the first time in my career.” He said, “There was no threat to the Turks — none — from this side of the border.” The Kurds, who are guarding thousands of ISIS prisoners, had just prevented a prison break and were pleading for U.S. support. Without it, the soldier said, those detainees would likely soon be free. Of the president: “He doesn’t understand the problem. He doesn’t understand the repercussions to this.” “It’s a shame,” he added. “The Kurds are standing by us. No other partner I have ever dealt with would stand by us.”

I believe every word of this.

Why this decision? Why now?

To redeem a campaign pledge with another campaign looming? On impulse? What was behind the impulse? The president doesn’t seem to know much about the Kurds — that they’ve backed the U.S. since 2003 and fought ISIS since 2011. They have their reasons: They want their own state. But they are a gallant people, brave and sympathetic to the West.

The president, defending this decision, asked what we owe them. “They didn’t help us in the Second World War, at Normandy for example.”

Yes, I forgot. Reagan made that point in his Pointe du Hoc speech. He said, “Don’t forget to stick it to the Kurds for not showing up.” Oh wait, he didn’t say that, because he was quite the reader of history.

Mr. Trump, in defending his position, says he is against the “endless wars” that have marked the first two decades of this century. Fair and good, the right approach, he ran for president opposing them and Americans left and right agreed.

But there is too much craziness to the decision, both its substance and how it was made. The area has been functioning, the number of U.S. troops small and limited. Adm. Stavridis called it “a small investment with a big spring to it.”

The decision was done on the word of Mr. Erdogan, a particular kind of player — thuggish, duplicitous. He considers the Kurds on his border a security threat. He threatens to send Syrian refugees to Europe if European countries call his incursion an occupation. If they insult him like that, “We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.”

Mr. Trump himself says if the ISIS terrorists the Kurds are holding in prison are freed or escape, no worry. “They’re going to be escaping to Europe,” he said. “They want to go back to their homes.”

That’s a viciously careless way to treat your allies. Who, by the way, were at Normandy.

Most unsettling was the president’s mad tweet assuring critics that his decision was right: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” This isn’t funny, it’s self-inflated nut stuff.

The president is misreading his base, which will have qualms. Their sons and daughters fought in the wars; they know who the Kurds are.

Why would he do such a dramatic, piercing thing at what is for him a dramatic, piercing moment, with impeachment looming and support for it rising in the polls? Why offend Republicans senators, whom the president needs to survive impeachment? Why give them an excuse to start peeling off?

Why give those of his supporters who are cable-news hacks an excuse to show some pride? I’m not a lackey, this is about principle, the president has made a misjudgment! Watch it, they could get in the habit of self-respect.

The Syria decision contributes to the hardened impression that in foreign policy he’s all impulse, blithely operating out of his depth. It adds to the hardening suspicion that in negotiations he’s not actually tough; he’ll say yes to a lot of things, and some very bad things, to get the deal, the photo-op, the triumphant handshake.

Foreign-policy decisions in this administration look like the ball in a pinball machine in some garish arcade with flashing lights and some frantic guy pushing the levers ping ping ping and thinking he’s winning.

Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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